Capital Letter

How and why Delhi's food scene has outshone Mumbai's over the last decade.

December 9, 2011 2:42 pm by

Olive Beach in New Delhi.

I spent three days in Delhi this week, visiting the Fine Foods Expo 2011. When I was not tasting everything from parathas to pinot noir in Hall Number 17 at Pragati Maidan, I was trying out various cuisines at the many restaurants in the capital city. I enjoyed chef Gresham Fernandes’s molecular gastronomy at Smoke House Room in Mehrauli; Himalayan (Bhutanese, Tibetan and Nepali) food in Hauz Khas Village; and Bihari cuisine in Shahpur Jat, thanks to the hospitality of many Delhi friends. I was constantly asked to extend my trip or to to come back soon and try Andhra Bhavan; make the trek to seedy Bhogal for Afghani food at Kabul Express; and sample the fare in Paharganj’s German bakeries and Israeli joints. While in Hauz Khas, friends recommended we climb three steep flights of steps to take a peek at Gunpowder, which describes its cuisine as “peninsular”. Even though online and media reviews for the tiny eatery have been hit and miss, I am deeply curious about their toddy shop meen curry, sweet and sour pumpkin and Coorgi pandi curry. Nagaland’s Kitchen in Green Park has been on my mind since I read the menu online, and during my next trip, I plan to try the akhuni roasted pork (cooked in fermented beans), fish robu (cooked in dry yam leaves) and rosep aon (veggies cooked with mixed Naga herbs). It has thus become necessary to go back to Delhi soon and for a longer trip.

This is strange, because I am a card-carrying lover of Mumbai’s food scene. And I have always thought my city to be better than the capital in most ways, including food. It perplexes me that Mumbai’s food scene is considered less vibrant, interesting and varied than Delhi’s. Until a decade ago, that was not true. Fine dining in Delhi meant five-star hotels; there were hardly any fancy stand-alone places.

Delhi’s most obvious argument is its cheaper real estate, making commercial food spaces more affordable and viable. But that is the old story and cannot be the only factor. So I asked a few restaurateurs, chefs and diners about what has changed, what makes them invest time and money in the capital, and why they prefer it to Mumbai. Some of their reasons were contradictory, but many made sense. Almost all of them said that Delhi folks have a higher propensity for conspicuous consumption. “People may not know what they are eating, but if they see a dish for Rs5,000, they will say ‘Chalo, khaatein hain’,” said Saurabh Sharma who has worked with food export companies based in France and Spain. “We like a little show- off-giri, and Delhi chefs understand that, so they show off very much. In Bombay, I ate a dosa at Sahara Star for Rs800, and all it had was potatoes in it. In a Delhi hotel, we would have gotten six chutneys with it.”

This proclivity to spend is something that chefs and restaurateurs use to their advantage. If Delhi diners choose foie gras simply because it is the new “it” (and most expensive) dish, eventually they will learn to appreciate it. “Delhi people are more understanding of my art,” said Sabyasachi Gorai, the director of kitchens for A.D. Singh’s restaurants Olive, Olive Beach and Ai in Delhi. “[Here] a diner thinks before going to a restaurant, considers if he will like it. In Mumbai, most people expect the restaurant to bend to their taste.” Gorai feels that it is easier to educate a Delhi diner. “In the process of showing off, they have learned to appreciate more food,” said Riyaaz Amlani, CEO and MD of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality, which recently launched the 16,000 square feet Smoke House Room. “The average per-table spend of Mocha in Delhi is higher than the spend in Mumbai. In Mumbai, a restaurant survives on merit. In Delhi, it survives on the scene.”

Geography too works in Delhi’s favour. Coming to the city centre from not only Noida and Gurgaon, but also Haryana and Uttar Pradesh is far easier than making the trek from Navi Mumbai to Bandra or Colaba. In Mumbai, in many pockets, the demand for decent places to dine at outstrips supply, so prices get escalated and opening new, innovative restaurants commercially unviable. Delhi, rather than Mumbai, has also become the city of choice for migrants and expats. “People come from all over because the scope of employment is much bigger here,” said Gorai. “While Mumbai is more cosmopolitan in its outlook, Delhi attracts more people.”

For instance, employees from the nearby offices of Honda and Suzuki fill Gorai’s Japanese restaurant Ai. He claims that 45 of the 50 seats on most nights are occupied by Japanese expats. A. D. Singh, the managing director of the Olive properties in Delhi and Mumbai and partner at Ai, believes that Delhi’s large expat population has contributed greatly to the vibrancy of its food scene. “Not only the expats, but Delhi’s trade commissions, such as the Italian and Spanish ones, are very supportive of the food scene there,” said Singh. “It makes it easier to bring visiting chefs, organise festivals, and so on.”

Setting up a restaurant in Delhi is also less difficult than it is in Mumbai. “It is easier to get licences, because the city is not run by a state,” said Amlani. “You can get a 24-hour licence, while Mumbai still struggles for 1.30am.” [the time by which stand-alone establishments must shut] Many diners agreed that since Delhi’s Chief Minister only has to think about Delhi (unlike Mumbai, where the CM has to consider the state as a vote bank) it’s easier to make decisions that put the capital, its people, its needs and its lifestyle, in focus. “Doing business in Mumbai takes the life out of you,” said Amlani. “You have to keep schmoozing with the powers that be. Delhi has fewer professional blackmailers.”